Desert island-Uzbekistan

We turned to each other the next day and said were we just in a film! The train journey was epic on every level. A night train always throws up peculiar experiences and then throw in a border crossing, changing carriages half way and traversing 700km of desert supplied us with enough excitement for a while. We met Sten, our German (train driver) Russian speaking cyclist friend helped us buy tickets and who became our travelling companion and room buddy for the following 3 nights. All 3 of us boarded the train at 11pm for a midnight departure. Once our bike front wheels were removed and bags cramped into our sleeping platforms we handed over our passports and immigration cards (which were returned to us on the train). We settled into our separate compartments. Each 2nd class compartment had 4 beds, so we all meet other Uzbek (all men). I was lucky as had a Kazakhstan guy who spoke great English and looked after me as we chatted to 3.30am after all the 2 sets of hardcore border patrol had finished checking bags and stripping the train down. At one point one guy came in who looked like he worked for the KGB! Barbara had 3 guys in her compartment who she helped fill out immigration forms by lending her glasses. A few hours passed and I awoke to a man changing his dressings and colostomy bag, perhaps cleaning there was more hygienic than the toilet. Black market money changers passed carriages with bags full of som (1 US $=7,500 som). Money exchanged and a huge pile was crammed into my bag.
The next challenge at a station was to take all of our bags (not bikes thankfully) and make our way to Platz (3rd class), which was 8 carriages down the train. 45 people in 1 open carriage with bed platforms for every one. The smells of hot bodies, food, and the regular dried and smelly fish seller all mashed together awoke our sense again. This was one way to sample local travel, where cycling can cocoon you at times. The whole 18 hour journey was great and firstly, it got us over 700km of mainly desert and secondly we sampled local train travel. 

Our arrival in Uzbekistan came in the form of a soviet style city of Urgench. The 3 of us decided to share a room as we discovered prices were higher and you can only pay in dollars cash and local to tourist prices were around double! Our next day took us a short and speedy cycle ride to Khiva. A historical mud walled city, full of preserved and stunning madrases, minarets, bazars. Our resting place for 2 nights. Sten departed for another train journey and we soaked in such a mind blowing places, which we had never experienced before. 
Food supplies packed and a plan for the next stage we hit the road through the fertile corridor until we hit desert again. We covered good distance and camped in the desert at night fall, with mud rocks as tent supports as this desert was mainly sand. We camped down but both had a bad sleep, something was stirring. The morning ritual (in the wild) of dig a whole needed several wholes digging. We both began to feel bad as the morning progressed, but cycling in the extreme heat, no shade and the monotony of desert roads began to pull us down. We tried to fix a tarp against a pole for temporary shelter but the winds played havoc so after a short rest we continued until finally some 50-60km after the last stall we came to a tea/food stop. Both exhausted and feeling terrible we drank and tried to eat, but the idea of moving was too daunting. I think the women who ran the restaurant sensed this and said stay here, you can sleep out here on the bench (which are comfortable with cushions). My fever and limb aches kicked in and we settled down early as the small world around us continued. We woke as sun broke and both said we didn’t think we could cycle as still feeling ill. Our mission was to hitch a lift and with an hour after several trucks stopped but couldn’t take us we were picked up by two general motor drivers who were retuning with an empty load. Bike strapped to the open platform we climbed into the cab and began our 240km journey. We communicated by gestures, drawings and smiles. Thank you both for the lift and ice creams. 

A short but tough cycle ride into Bukhara almost finished us after 5 hours in the back of a bouncy hot truck. We found refuge in a hotel and didn’t emerge until breakfast, where thankfully I can report we ate well. The 3 days in Bukhara were spent get better and seeing the main sites. A very different city to Khiva as the sites were not contained within the old city walls but scattered around. We spent time with a fellow traveller Silvia (Canadian) at breakfast, supper and a trip to the summer palace. The intensity of the blue and emerald coloured tiles, the mix of textiles and the coloured dresses of the women gave us a vivid colour overload. 
Once feeling that we had enough energy after our latest belt of travellers issues we left Bukhara and made our way to Samarkand. Our first short cut took us along partially unpaved and dusty roads until we met the highway. The landscapes remained green with the majority of land being occupied with orchards, vineyards and cotton fields. It was a welcome sight and the opportunity to take shade was a great feeling after the hostile desert. We covered 260km in 3 days which was a little painful at times but knowing we were to reach Samarkand, our key landmark on the trip was motivating. We camped in the semi desert the first night and on the second we found refuge in a restaurant garden. They were closed as they were having a large family gathering but welcomed us in. On the last cycle day we met our first Uzbekistan cyclist and a Russian guy who where doing a short 2/3 day trip. Within minutes of chatting the Uzbek guy piled a small amount of notes into my shirt pocket and won’t take no for an answer!

The sound of the constant car horns, people shouting, whistling and boys/young men on bikes trying to out ride you, can at times become too much as after hours of the same loud noises you try to filter them out especially as you are fatigued. We began to ignore whistles and only respond to children and women as a strategy.
We arrived in Samarkand at night, bleary from 3 days cycling of dust and noise to the vast multiple lanes of traffic and city life. Night arrivals are never great but once on track we paused at the moon lite mausoleum in all its glory and found a great B&B (Antica) and rested. 
We awoke the next day to a fine breakfast feast and only to meet Silvia again (all have stayed in the same last 3 places!) Walking, gazing and soaking in the awe inspiring monuments of the Registan, Mausoleums and Meros’ mulberry paper making workshop (separate blog post will follow with more info) have been a treat and meeting a key goal on our tour.

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